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Australian government still pushing decryption magic bullet

Seven months after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told ZDNet the laws of Australia will trump the laws of mathematics, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has discussed looming legislation that would force companies to help the government access communications.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has reignited the Coalition's push to access encrypted communications, touting decryption as fundamental in fighting terrorism, ahead of the Australia-ASEAN Special Summit next month.

Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Dutton labelled "ubiquitous encryption" a "significant obstacle" to terrorism investigations.

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"I am confident that the government has given our agencies the best tools to do the job, but as terrorists -- and other criminals -- evolve their tactics, so must we," he said.

"In this regard, ubiquitous encryption -- a vital tool for secure personal banking and other communications including messaging -- has become a significant obstacle to terrorism investigations."

According to Dutton, more than 90 percent of counter-terrorism targets are using encryption for communications, including for attack planning in Australia.

"Decryption takes time, a precious commodity when threats may materialise in a matter of days or even hours," he added. "Law enforcement access to encrypted communications should be on the same basis as telephone and other intercepts, in which companies provide vital and willing assistance in response to court orders."

Fresh in his new role as Home Affairs minister, Dutton believes companies "ought to be concerned" with the reputational harm that comes from terrorists and criminals using their encryption and social media platforms for illicit ends.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with his then Attorney-General George Brandis, announced plans in July to introduce legislation that would force internet companies to assist law enforcement in decrypting messages sent with end-to-end encryption.

Questioning if the proposed legislation was technically possible, ZDNet asked the prime minister if the laws of mathematics would trump the laws of Australia.

"The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that," Turnbull told ZDNet. "The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

During his media rounds, Turnbull made sure he let Australia know his intention was to protect the nation against terrorism and to protect the community from criminal rings such as those involved in paedophilia, rather than nutting out the technical specs of the laws modelled on the UK's snoopers' charter.

While no further detail was offered on Wednesday, Dutton said the Coalition still intends to introduce legislation that would force companies to bend to the government's will.

"The government is willing to work with these firms, but we will also introduce legislation to ensure companies providing communications services and devices in Australia have an obligation to assist agencies with decryption," he said. "And as a society, we should hold these companies responsible when their service is used to plan or facilitate unlawful activity."

See also: Thou shalt be secure: RSA says you can't force private sector to break encryption

According to the minister, the companies involved -- highlighted as ISPs, those "involved in apps", and social media giants -- have a social responsibility to ensure terrorist activity isn't conducted on their respective platforms.

Dutton said that previously, when having a landline telephone conversation analogue line, law enforcement could listen in with Telstra granting them access; equally police could gain access to SMS or pager messages. He said in some cases it added to a prosecution or could prevent a terrorist attack.

"The question now is that when you send a message, not by conventional text message, but by an encrypted message app, we can't get access to that information and that's the difficulty," he explained.

"I don't think the legislation has caught up with the current technology. It's not about hacking into people's services -- we're still talking about a warrant issued."

He continued by explaining the criminals are much ahead of this than "lay citizens" and that they have moved their communications into an area that is difficult for agencies to find information.

"If there was a terrorist attack in our country tomorrow and in the Royal Commission subsequent to it was discovered that we could have averted that crisis, stopped that killing of a couple of hundred Australians, I think people would say, 'Why didn't you have better access to that information as it was conveyed through the encrypted app between criminal A and criminal B?'," Dutton told the Press Club.

"I don't see it any different, in any different way, the conveyance of that information compared to the way it was done by a written note that the police could then execute a search warrant on your house to discover that information."

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